Keeping Secrets

What makes hiding certain facts for a while, or even permanently, a common behaviour in relationships?

Couple"I didn't tell her earlier as I was not sure of her response." "I value our relationship too much; I couldn't risk it by telling him this." "I was scared of losing face with her." These are oft-repeated statements made by people who keep secrets from their partners.

Why does one keep secrets?

As marriage and relationship counsellors, we often come across people who withhold information from their spouses. We also notice that there aren't too many reasons why people keep secrets. The predominant cause is "fear."

  • Fear of losing the relationship
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of conflict
  • Fear of being confronted
  • Fear of ruining one's image, or reputation
  • Fear of response, as this is unknown.

These fears are not always baseless. Surely, there are chances of losing your relationship, or of a painful conflict, or confrontation, but the point is one has the choice of going through this pain, and "growing-up" as an individual. Or, one has a choice of keeping secrets and losing the chance of possible "growth."

For a seed to grow into a plant, it has to first pass through the process of breaking out of the shell, opening up to the external, or face disintegration of itself as a seed. Only then can a higher form [plant] come into existence. It may appear safe and self-preserving for the seed to remain closed and unexposed. But, then, the higher possibilities of growing, flowering and blooming into a tree cannot be attained.

Just like the seed, everyone carries the possibility of "growth" within oneself. However, every growth demands the death of the old and the birth of the new. The old is familiar and appears safer. The new is unknown; it carries fear.

Unless we shed our fears, aspire to be new, and face the unknown, growth is not possible.

Where does it begin?

All of us are born with a fearless and spontaneous spirit.

However, as we grow, we gather experiences and responses from those around us. These are often ingrained in our psyche. These experiences start altering and manipulating our responses. Invariably, parents tend to instil fear directly, or indirectly, into children. There are occasions when the child is scolded, beaten up, or insulted, by parents for their spontaneous behaviour. Very often, what is spontaneous for a child is socially unacceptable to parents.

For example, it is most innocent and spontaneous for a child to touch and play with the genitals. But, it is "dirty" and "wrong," according to parents and other adults. Every child lives through these innumerable experiences when his/her spontaneity, fearlessness and innocence lead to scolding, beating, or some other form of punishment.

Somewhere deep within, we all cherish our spontaneous and fearless nature. However, responses from others force us to accept the so-called norms of society. This is the point where secrets begin.

Slowly, the child learns the strategy where s/he can go deep inside one's own mental world and also keep their true self a well-guarded secret from the world around. This is where a "split" in their personality sets in. It may lead them to spend their entire life in innumerable therapy sessions, trying to resolve this split and integrate their personality. Outwardly, one may manage to behave in a socially-compatible manner, but remain someone else within. Have you not seen a child use this strategy intelligently, especially with those whom s/he finds "judgmental" towards oneself and/or through spontaneous expression? What's more, each "painful" experience of being open, honest, and truthful strengthens the child's strategy of keeping secrets. By the time the child grows into adulthood, "keeping secrets" becomes a fixed, self-learned pattern. It becomes one's second nature.

Unlearning the learnt

As adults, we are exposed to different people. We relate to them at a grown-up level. Now, the strategy of keeping secrets and living in one's own secret mental world is not necessary. One can be himself, or herself, assertive and self-confident, because s/he is not a dependent and vulnerable child any more.

However, when old self-learned patterns and strategies become firm habits, one loses the awareness of their "learned" nature. Therefore, the strategy of keeping secrets is misused unknowingly, even in situations when it is not required.

What was strategically devised earlier for guarding the "self" now becomes self-destructive. It hampers personal growth as well as harmony in relationships. It may now be, unwittingly, used with people who may not be judgmental at all. Because, keeping secrets is a sickness. It, therefore, needs to be consciously "unlearned." You also need to give up the vulnerability tag, or the risk that goes with it. You need to build self-confidence and practice assertiveness.

Whenever one finds it difficult to be genuine, some questions need to be asked:

  • Is it me? Do I have a need to keep up a certain image and project myself as someone other than who I am?
  • Is it the other? Do I feel judged, and condemned by the other?

Such self-examination can be very enlightening. It makes us aware of the root cause of keeping secrets. In other words, it helps us to "unlearn the learnt."

Genuine vs secretive

What is genuineness? It is the willingness to be real, spontaneous, and non-defensive. It means being harmonious. When a person has consistency at and between three levels - level of experience, level of awareness of experience, and level of communication of awareness — one is said to be congruent. For example, a husband feels angry with his wife. He is aware of his emotion, but he hides it from her for the sake of short-term "external" harmony. He is not congruent and genuine. Genuineness means honesty with oneself and with others.

But, genuineness must be constructive. You may, for instance, be aware of certain facts and feelings. Whether they should be communicated, or not, depends on whether such revelations will be helpful, or harmful, to the other person, or the relationship.

This is also called facilitative genuineness. If you feel withholding some information is truly essential for the physical, mental and emotional health of the other person, it would be right to do so. You should, however, remember that in evaluating whether secrets should be kept or not, your focus should, at all times, be keyed to the health and wellbeing of the other person, and also the relationship.

For example, a young unmarried daughter is pregnant and her father has just suffered a heart attack. It becomes inevitable for the daughter to keep her pregnancy a secret, as it could be harmful for the wellbeing of her father.

Connecting in relationships

A relationship is a relationship only when there is a feeling of connectedness between two individuals. This connection needs to be at the verbal and non-verbal level. For example, two individuals may be having a verbal conversation and appear to be connected. But, are they really connected? If one or both of them is keeping secrets, or withholding information, then they are not connected to each other at the non-verbal level. This is because the individual withholding the information is someone else within, but projecting to be another person outside. This type of relating is dishonest, because one is relating to a mask, and not to the real person. Such a relating is detrimental to any relationship; also, keeping secrets increases the distance between the two individuals. There are so many unknown areas, which keep increasing everyday because of the habit of keeping secrets, so much so one fine day the two individuals realise that they don't really know each other and are not connected at all. To bridge this gap, one has to risk being vulnerable, baring one's soul to the other, and completely open and willing to connect at the deepest level.

In sex too, one cannot connect unless one is completely bare and stripped of all barriers at the physical level.

Similarly, on a deeper emotional level, one cannot connect heart-to-heart, unless one bares the soul and strips oneself of all masks. A relationship having the three Cs - Commitment, Care and Communication - is the only relationship that is honest and open. It can survive the ravages of time and the highs and lows of life.

The need for a "soft place" to fall

Every human being needs a "soft place" to fall back on, where s/he can feel accepted and loved for who they are. A place, where s/he can be oneself, spontaneous, and relaxed, without being judged.

This is the need of every human heart, and so it can be said that no one in their innermost being really wants to be secretive, because to carry the burden of a secret is not a comfortable feeling.

When we can reveal all to someone, it is a mark of respect to the other. It means that the other person is trustworthy, loving and accepting, and because of which we can be comfortable, relaxed and be ourselves. This is the greatest compliment that anyone can receive. When people do not feel the need to keep secrets from you and can just be themselves in your presence, know that you have reached true maturity and acquired wisdom.

A Secret "Kept"

Sunita, a happily married lady, in her late twenties came to us for counselling. She loved her husband dearly and cared deeply for their marital relationship. However, one thing troubled her often. About 10 years ago, when she was 17, she had had an affair, got pregnant, and got herself aborted, secretly. This fact was not known; even to her parents. Soon after, she broke-off with her boyfriend. She never kept in touch with him, after that. Eight years later, she got married to Vijay who loved her. Sunita felt sincerely committed to Vijay. Yet, she kept her past a secret from Vijay, because she was not sure of his response. She feared that her relationship would end, or get affected. At the same time, she felt guilty. She wanted to know whether she could tell Vijay about her past, or keep it under wraps.

After analysing every possible aspect of the situation, we advised Sunita to keep her secret. We told her that there was a great change in her during the last 10 years. She was not the same person as she was at age 17, when she was immature, impulsive. We told her that she's a mature, balanced lady now. Things had changed, we told her, and there's no need to justify what she did as a teenager. That she has repented for it, and got out of the mess and grown into a mature person was itself a big step forward. That she's truly in love with her husband and cares for their relationship is another positive aspect. We pointed out that it was not fair for her now to take emotional responsibility for being the impulsive teenager who "wronged" 10 years ago. We helped her to dis-identify herself from her old image and forget the past, as if it did not belong to her. It was a rare case, when as counsellors we advised our client to "keep a secret." We had arrived at this conclusion after carefully examining the merits and demerits of the case. We were fully convinced about the complete change Sunita had gone through before advising her to disassociate herself from the past. We also felt, that, circumstantially, there was no possibility of the truth revealing itself technically in any manner.

Keeping secrets in equal relationships

What is an "equal" relationship? An equal relationship between two people is one where both enjoy the freedom of being their true selves, without being judged by the other. In other words, when two individuals love and accept each other "unconditionally," for who they are, the relationship is equal. Growth is possible only in such a relationship in which the other acts like a mirror and reflects those dark areas of one's personality that require healing. Secrets have no place in such a relationship.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre

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